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The Organizer

Posted by martinteller on January 27, 2013

In the late 19th century, workers at a Turin textile factory are being exploited.  Besides working 14-hour days (with a half hour for lunch), they’re routinely maimed by the equipment with no insurance or compensation.  They attempt to orchestrate a walkout, but at the moment of truth they all chicken out.  Then Professor Sinigalia (Marcello Mastroianni) rolls into town.  He’s a vagrant and a fugitive, but one with some knowledge of worker organization.  He rallies the workers into a strike, but a month without pay leaves them struggling and conflicts arise within group, trying to stay united against the uncompassionate factory owners and managers.

I previously thought I was missing only two entries from the 2012 revision of the “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” top 1000 list.  Brakhage’s The Art of Vision, which I have been unable to obtain, and Out 1: noli me tangere, which I’m not counting because I’ve seen the shorter (but still really, really long) “Spectre” cut of the film.  I had forgotten that The Organizer was also on the list.  I had been waiting for this Criterion release to come out, and then waiting for the library to get it.  With the 2013 revision right around the corner, I could have just written it off and waited to see if it still made the cut.  But I’ve enjoyed Mario Monicelli’s work in the past and decided to give it a shot.

I’m very glad I did.  Easily the best I’ve seen from Monicelli.  The American title gives you the impression that the film will focus primarily on Mastroianni.  But the original title, “The Comrades” (changed for the benefit of Red-fearing Americans), tells the true story.  It’s fully an ensemble film.  The professor doesn’t show up until half an hour into the film, and although he is a pivotal character, others are equally important.  Raoul (Renato Salvatori), the handsome playboy who isn’t entirely on board with the strike.  Pautasso (Folco Lulli), the heavy-set worker who takes the rap for the failed walkout.  Martinetti (Bernard Blier), the leader of the workers.  Cesarina (Elvira Tonelli), a woman not to be reckoned with.  Omero (Franco Ciolli), the youth trying to save his little brother from a future in the factory.  Arro (Antonio Casamonica), the recent arrival from Sicily who can’t afford the strike.  Niobe (Annie Giradot), the prostitute daughter of one of the workers.  All wonderful performances and characterizations.  A little on the archetypal side, perhaps, but well-drawn figures with strong personalities.

The story is consistently compelling, as you watch these people cope with their situation and deal with hardships, scabs, police intervention and dissent among the ranks.  Monicelli’s roots are in comedy — at least from what I’ve seen in Big Deal on Madonna Street and La Grande guerra — and he peppers the often grim scenario with lively and charming moments of humor.  Although the organization is serious business with serious consequences, there is lightness to be found among this cast of characters, lightness that never feels too flip.

The look of the film is glorious.  It opens with snapshots from the era, and the film looks like those pictures come to life.  Set in roughly the same time and place as The Turin Horse, it captures the same rugged grime, full of texture.  With exceptionally good period recreation in the art direction and costuming, nothing about it feels artificial.  Some terrific tracking shots, and compositions that are artful whether capturing a crowd or focusing on a pair of characters.  Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Le Notti BiancheSatyriconAll That Jazz) did a fantastic job.  Also a lovely score by Carlo Rustichelli.

It is certainly a one-sided look and may seem like propaganda to many viewers.  Being pro-union myself, it didn’t bother me much and wasn’t nearly as over-the-top as some of the Soviet movies.  There may be more nuances to the situation that could have been covered, but really I don’t see how you can’t side with the workers.  A union film as powerful as Matewan, with a lighter (but not too light) touch, a wonderfully crafted piece of work.  Rating: Great (90)

IMDb
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